England, My England: Ballard of a Windrush Workhorse
You were in charge as long as you were on your own. Once someone white came along, you became his or her assistant.
In the first two buildings that Ralph Swimer Limited occupied, no white person would work. Not even those without qualifications. The Swimer family lived above the shop at 22 Whitechurch Lane and their living quarters were as disgusting as the business premises below.
Ralph Swimer had advertised in the Hackney Gazette for a Bookkeeper to Trial Balance. Each applicant who turned up for an interview bluntly refused the job when offered. He was glad, finally, to sneer a well-qualified and pretty, young thing in her early thirties. At last, old man Swimer knew that they had found in this Mrs Verona Pettigrew, a dedicated and conscientious workhorse who would stay the course.
Perfect, he thought; well-groomed, educated and elegant, if a little too proud for her own good. He would handle that pride with typical Romanian kid gloves, at least, until he had endeared himself to her. Since she was recently separated from her husband and a single mother, that would also earn him some mileage. He would generously offer to pay her partly off the records and under the table, untaxed, cunningly disguised as a little more in her hand each week. A sincere attempt to help her make ends meet, he told her.
In this way, he would avoid some national insurance contributions from his struggling business. More importantly, he would also not have to reveal precisely how much he had reluctantly agreed to pay this “schvartze woman”. He was almost sure that she could not get a job elsewhere, but she had driven a hard bargain. It would not do to upset his future English employees with revelations on the books about how much more than them this ‘Mrs Pettigrew’ was earning.
He knew that he would have to employ some English staff in his clothing business and soon. An Englishman would be far more successful at selling to the good British public than he could ever be with his Jewish background and Eastern European accent. He might as well start preparing his business for them from now. After all, Rona was here. He had begun calling his new employee “Rona” instead of Verona almost immediately. It was her job now to cut costs, and to help him expand his business, exponentially.
Unknown to Ralph Swimer, young Mrs Pettigrew had been offered another job nearby. Mr Abrahams of Davis and Field was a real gent. His sole female employee, however, was a nasty piece of work. She did not think that Verona was the sort of person whom she wanted to use the same toilet that she sat on. While Mr Davis did everything reasonably in his power to provide alternative facilities, “Miss Verona”, as Abrahams called her, had objected to this English woman’s attitude. “If I am good enough to do the firms’ books of accounts, then I am good enough to use the same lavatory used by the likes of her.” Davis, of course, would not sack his own relative and long-time employee.
That was why it had taken her a whole week before she could pluck up enough courage to start working with Swimers at 22 Whitechurch Lane. She had given Ralph Swimer some sad story about being too sick to come into work. In reality, she did not want to be employed in such a rundown environment. Her husband’s car a year earlier had been far superior to Swimer’s Austin Cambridge. Her former home at 32 Hartley Road had been a dwelling of which anyone would have been proud. Now, with her marriage in tatters and a young mouth to feed, she was forced to accept any old foolish job these people had to offer.
At Whitechurch Lane and Goulston Street, she had to hide from anyone she knew just to use the public toilets at Aldgate East Station. There were no staff facilities at the office. Later, when she was going into Goulston Street in Whitechapel, then in the centre of the Jewish East End, if she met anybody she knew, Mrs Pettigrew walked around the block to lose them. Then walked back into the shabby shop front, hopefully, without being spotted. Like any other employee, she thought that as the company grew, she would grow with it. From a turnover of fifty-six thousand in 1965; seventy thousand in 1966; it went to seven hundred and fifty thousand in 1973, and she was the only office staff, apart from an invoice clerk.
She left for two years after the son, Peter, took over. When invited back part-time in 1975, they still had not done what she had suggested years before to improve the accounting system. They would not listen. As long they had workhorses like her, they used them mercilessly. She was dealing with six hundred invoices by hand each month without the aid of a computer. Most of these invoices were for one “special” firm, J. H. Smith & Company (Leyton) Limited. Their director, Mr Sydney Caplan, used to own the company but sold it to a larger business. Caplan still did all the buying and had the Swimers jumping to his beck and call. In one month, he could have three hundred invoices. As he paid fifty times more than anyone else at the time, everyone was dancing to his tune and jumping at the sound of his voice.
It was Mrs Pettigrew, of course, that ended up with the unnecessarily heavy workload that meant she sometimes had to take work home. All they had to do was use delivery notes each time Caplan phoned in with an order and then copy them onto one invoice later. In that way, they would have double records, but they did not like double records. If records were to be kept, they would have to be checked and, some would vanish. There was nothing anyone could do about it. False fires happen. The Government, run by some of their own people, did not have the common sense to insist on backup records. It seems they did not want to ensure that revenues could be collected to keep much-needed public services running. That was why people like them built their businesses in areas around where they lived and often moved out, leaving the buildings to rot for tax purposes.
They were the sort of people that Margaret Thatcher worshipped. She thought that because people got rich by trade that they made their money honestly. That may have been the case when her father had his shop in Grantham, but Mr Roberts must have been the honourable type. Thatcher may have been tapping into the aspirations of ordinary people when in 1979, she made her Saint Francis of Assisi speech.
But her first mistake as prime minister was to reduce the 85% tax rate to sixty per cent and the lower rate by five pence. A bold move would have been to reduce the lower rate to twenty pence. Thereby honouring her pledge to enable ordinary people to keep more of what they earned. Mrs Pettigrew did the wages and salaries at the time. She saw the difference between the bosses’ rebate and that of the ordinary workers. She got a couple of pounds and was a ‘high earner’ compared to some other folks.
The problem with J. H. Smith (Leyton) Limited was discovered when “the workhorse” left. Their new recruit, the white former toilet attendant and office cleaner, Joyce, had chased away the red-haired Jewish woman who did the sales ledger. By the time Verona was asked to return part-time, they had to get someone to help her because there were now far too many invoices. Still, they would not use delivery notes. Even the goods sold for cash were put on individual invoices. Joyce could not cope as a bookkeeper.
The white woman made way too many mistakes that the accountants had to send their qualified staff to do the work that Verona used to do alone. It was then that one Indian accountant told them what “Mrs Pettigrew has been trying to get you to do for years. If you separate cash sales from invoice sales and use delivery notes, you will reduce the workload considerably.” The accountants, Morley and Scott, had used her accuracy to their advantage. They came twice a year to audit the books. After the first week, there was usually nothing for them to do, but they earned more in two weeks than she earned all year.
Everyone knew that Mrs Pettigrew’s accounts were always one hundred per cent accurate. She checked the invoices the company sent out and those they received. She had no communications at all with her opposite number in the companies with whom they traded. There were never any discrepancies unless, of course, there was an invoice or cheque lost in the post. Yet, Mrs Pettigrew was grossly underpaid and completely undervalued. The company used the fact that the British were prejudice on racial grounds to employ her, and others like her, partly under the table and off the records at the lower end of the scale.
Their Black staff were never promoted. As a Black person, you were in charge as long as you were on your own. Once someone white came along, you became his or her assistant, or you had no job title but all the responsibility without the accompanying pay. Verona was the one in charge of the accounts department at Ralph Swimer Limited throughout her twenty-odd years with the company. But she was without a name, without a title, and without sufficient remuneration. Yet she knew everything there was to know about the business and the unscrupulous ways in which the directors all became multi-millionaires. Who would have thought there was so much money to be made in buttons and zips, trimmings and haberdashery?
Perhaps that’s why she was unfairly dismal after two decades of devoted service to a company now heavy-handedly managed by the son to whom her children had donated their castoffs. As she reminded the industrial tribunal hearing:
“A country’s duty is to its citizens and vice versa. A country’s leaders collect taxes from the rich to run services on behalf of its entire people. Taxes are not a new thing. Joseph was on his way to pay his taxes when Mary gave birth to Jesus. Maybe there is a moral and irony in that for everyone. How can people who live and make their money in a country expect their taxes to be used only in the areas in which they live?
It doesn’t work that way at all. Joseph was on his way to Bethlehem to pay his taxes. He did not live there. He had to travel a long way to get there. It is obvious, therefore, that even back then; all taxes were collected at some central head office and distributed according to the needs of the various communities. Not just for the benefit and concerns of the rich folks and the areas in which they live.”
She had represented herself in court. This kind of feisty talk did not get a claimant far or endear them to the panel. It was well beyond the jurisdiction of this employment tribunal to look into such matters and far beyond the interests of the imminent and well-appointed lawyers, barristers and judges representing her former employer.
Needless to say, she lost her claim for unfair dismissal and spiralled into a state of despair that lasted throughout the rest of her life. You might think that times have changed. Stories like this can never happen again in modern Britain, you say. Yet, the experiences of more recent migrants from Africa and the Caribbean would have you know that the more things change, the more they stay the same.